In my earlier days, before I got my first bike, I tended to be tail-end-charlie in the excursions of my older brothers and sisters during the summer school holidays.
One popular trip was the walk to the beach, across the clanking “Billie Goat’s Gruff Bridge” at Derby Street, stopping to select honeysuckle flowers to suck on the way. They always told me that the yellow ones were poisonous, but the white ones were OK. Knowing my siblings, this was probably because the yellow flowers had sweeter nectar and, as there were only a couple of thousand of them available, they had to be protected from my predations. To this day, I still don’t know whether they were joshing me.
If we had time, we’d make sure no-one was coming and furtively climb over the side of the bridge and underneath it. The bank was steep but navigable, and we could hide in secret as people walked or rode their bikes overhead. The bridge was an ancient wooden structure, decked with huge wooden planks that had started to bow with age. As a cycle rider approached, the timbers would resonate, and the planks rattled for several seconds after they’d biked past. The curious “wap-wap-wap” sound combined with metallic rattling and squeaking of old iron nails is something I remember to this day.
Cables, water pipes and the gas main for much of Whataupoko were slung on the sides of the bridge. The gas main hissed noisily as its volatile contents passed through, and the massive bolted joints were a thing of curiosity. Women in high heels had to literally tip-toe across the bridge for fear of losing a heel in the open knot holes or the gaps between the planks. The river always looked mysterious when peered directly down on through one of those open knot-holes.
Leaving our secret lair, we’d clamber back onto the bridge and head up Derby Street, passing the gas works with its coal sorter going “shuff-shuff-shuff” and call in for something less healthy than honeysuckle at the Little Wonder Dairy. The shop was a small room on the streetfront of a house, crammed with all sorts of wonderful goodies sitting on the (to me) tall counter or hung on trellis on the walls or stacked on the shelves behind the shopkeeper. We were “known” to the various shopowners over the years, but the only one whose name I can recall was Mister Visser, a kindly Austrian chap.
From the dairy, our trek would take us up the hill to Gladstone Road past the gasometers. There were two – one red the other silver. I used to marvel that something so big could grow and shrink from visit to visit depending on how much gas was in storage. From here, we had a choice. Straight ahead led to my grandmother’s place, left led us past the town clock to another turn into Grey Street and down to the beach.
On the beach trip, another feature would attract our attention, the old steam locomotive. A frozen relic of an earlier age, the small loco had been welded to a couple of rails on the footpath near the skating rink. To my eyes at that age, it was HUGE, and it was a struggle to climb up into the cab to look at the remaining brasswork and firebox.
From there it was only a few minutes more, past the railway station, to the hot grey sands of Waikanae Beach. I spent many, many hours at Waikanae in my younger days, both on the beach or in the curious 1950s collection of buildings that stretched from the surf clubhouse to the motor camp.
For a youngster, there were hours of entertainment to be had there. After a paddle in the open paddling pool and an ice cream bought from the kiosk there were the glassed observation rooms to be checked out. These concrete labyrinths afforded a view of the beach, and provided peaceful, sheltered seating for tired elders when us little horrors weren’t in them. But when we were there, they were places of resounding claps, echoing wails, pealing shrieks and other ghostly noises which were amplified to a satisfying degree by the inward curving concrete walls.
On one beach trip, I recall one of my brothers sitting atop the concrete wall of the promenade. He was either pushed from behind or slipped and slid down onto the sand grazing the skin on much of his back. It was vivid red and starting to bleed as he slipped his shirt on and we set off on the long walk back home.
En route, we worried anxiously, and debated back and forth. With scarcely a thought for our brother who might have bled to death on the walk, we worried – Would Mum be so angry that she grounded us for a week, and we couldn’t go back to Waikanae?